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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Not a stone will be left on stone (C33O)

Maybe the reason I’ve always been so scared of the end of the world, aside from these images from the gospel that were burned into my mind courtesy of the two-color drawings in the old St. Joseph missal, is that even as a little middle-class white boy from Phoenix I felt I had a lot to lose. I’d been compared in my classrooms with the pagan babies in Africa and the godless communist children in Russia, China, and Cuba, and I had it pretty good. If the end of the world came, or of my world, anyway, courtesy of the business end of a Soviet nuclear warhead, I had a lot to lose. Maybe heaven would be better, but I couldn’t count on it, according to the sisters and priests. Someone upstairs was watching everything I did and was taking notes. Before I had lost my virginity I was worried both about having committed adultery and catching venereal disease. You wanna talk about fear and trembling?

So I wonder whether people who have nothing to lose might in fact be happy when news of the apocalypse starts to spread. Is there a sense in which universal destruction might be good news for the poor? Something drives the historical dialectic that leads to revolution. There must be a point at which immanent death is preferable to life in the status quo. That’s not, I think, a place where I would want to live for very long.

At any rate, in 66 CE the Jews in Caesarea and then Jerusalem rose up and threw the Romans out, and it took the Romans three or four years to reconquer Jerusalem and then another three to destroy the holdouts in Masada. That’s seven or eight years of really bad news. During that time, the Romans offered sacrifice to the emperor in Herod’s temple, the “abomination of desolation,” the sacrilege that had not happened since Antiochus Epiphanes two centuries before. In the siege of Jerusalem and the aftermath, as many as a million Jews were killed. It was against this background that the first gospel was written, and that gospel became part of the source material that became the gospel of St. Luke, with its ominous warnings in this weekend’s liturgy about the end of things.

gathering: Soon and Very Soon or Road to Jerusalem
resp. psalm 98 – The Lord Comes to Rule (vv4,5,6)
communion: How Can I Keep from Singing
sending forth: Thy Kingdom Come

“Soon and Very Soon” (YouTube) is a song by Andrae Crouch that has become omnipresent in Catholic hymnals for the last couple of decades or so. In the live version referred to above, there’s a little 4-bar “Hallelujah” and a C section that don’t appear in the version that we have, but the song works fine without them. We may not believe that the cosmos is about to collapse in on itself for a few billion years, but the collapse of civilization on Gaia might be a little closer than that unless we clean up the place and put our guns down, and for each of us individually, “seeing the king” is just a breath away. So, do not send to know for whom the bell tolls and all that. Clap your hands and sing.

But at St. Anne's at most of the masses, we'll sing "Road to Jerusalem," the setting of Psalm 122 that I wrote about a few days ago. It's a scriptural text that the church associates with these last Sundays of the year. In fact, it is the responsorial psalm next week, on the Solemnity of Christ the King. The journey is always to Jerusalem, the city of destiny, where the reign of God and the world of Caesar almost visibly compete for the human heart. It gets us off on the right foot today, helping us remember that the fearsome imagery of the day of the Lord and the coming of the Son of Man are, in fact, good news.

Psalm 98 is a setting I wrote originally as the Christmas (Mass during the Day and seasonal) psalm back in the mid-80s, and it was first recorded on Do Not Fear to Hope. Over the years, I kept adding to it, verses and refrains, and we re-recorded it for Cries of the Spirit, Volume 2. On an email group with other pastoral musicians, I was whining about this psalm recently, wondering why, when it is so versatile with the different verses and refrains that it never caught on, especially because the text is a Grail text, and therefore it’s actually a church-legal setting. It’s a mystery to me. All I can figure out is that the cantor part is moderately demanding. Unlike the popular version of Psalm 98 by Haugen and Haas, this version is through-composed, with each verse having different music that I wrote just for that text. The range demanded of the cantor is about an octave and a half (B to F#) at worst, if a cantor has to sing both the lowest and highest notes (which aren’t in the same verse).

I wrote somewhat extensively recently on Trumpet in the Morning. I think it works today because the jubilee outlined in Leviticus for the chosen people rests on the same faith and hope that the coming of the Human Being (the "Son of Man") does in the apocalyptic literature of the last centuries BCE. The earth belongs to God. God is just and good, and if other gods appear to have the day in the cosmic battle for supremacy, then God is not finished, and will have the last word, and will not just restore but glorify God's own. God's final word on this is Jesus Christ, our jubilee, whose return (whatever that may mean) will bring justice to the earth.

Hope and perseverance are the virtues that ring strong through the liturgy of the word today, and just about no other hymn sings hope and perseverance better than “How Can I Keep from Singing,” which seems to me be an almost perfect faith-response to the gospel this Sunday. Even though there are half a dozen or so verses, the refrain “No storm can shake my inmost calm...” keeps coming back, hopefully in so infectious away that even the stoniest heart will be turned skyward. If we need to, we’ll follow it up with a verse or two of New Jerusalem, about which I wrote last week.

The closing song is “Thy Kingdom Come,” another song I wrote in the early 1980s that was on my first LP, You Alone, and was subsequently in Assemblybook, Glory and Praise Comprehensive Edition, and Gather Comprehensive. It’s less ubiquitous now, but we did record it again with some of the arranging improvements we’d made on it in the ensuing decade when we made Change Our Hearts in 1994. I remember just getting the idea for the song, thinking about the phrase “thy kingdom come” as sort of an encapsulation of the Gospel, both of the prayer of Jesus and his message, “the empire of God is at hand.” So I reached back to the beginning, and I think that first verse just came to me all at once, and I still like it:

O you who taught the mud to dream

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

And made the world with life to teem,

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

Did spin like tops the stars in space

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

And guide their paths with an ageless grace.

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

Now, I suspect that the idea of the melody of those verses bears at least a passing resemblance to the contour and feel of a Stephen Foster song called “Some Folks” and/or the first few notes of “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’”, but if one is going to steal, one might as well steal from the best. I don’t think there’s any My Sweet Lord/He’s So Fine controversy in the similarity. It’s more a shading than identity, that’s for sure. Other verses refer to Isaiah 55, the Arthurian legend, and God knows what else. I think I might have been more daring with lyrics when I knew less. But who isn’t? You’re more likely to pet the nice big kitty until someone tells you it’s a mountain lion.

Why “ground zero” on this page? Well, who knows what’s coming, and where it’s coming from? That’s part of what these days are all about, or do we think Jesus is speaking about someone else when he issues his warning:
While some people were speaking about

how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,

Jesus said, "All that you see here--
the days will come when there will not be left

a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down."

But he also tells us not to go running off here (behind our border fences) or there (off to a war of shock and awe) because someone is out there hollering about “evildoers” and using the name of Christ to justify the violence. Just, “do not be terrified.” Death, as Christ has shown us, is not the final word, and the forces of life are already present within the world, ready to rise like the sun of justice with healing light. If not even that (desert) storm can shake our inmost calm, how can we keep from singing?